Hey Debate Teachers? We Can Do Better. (Post-CELTA Ideas and Reflections)

Background

I recently got my CELTA, the gold standard for entry-level certificates in Teaching English as a Second Language. It was a super intense month of teaching practice, lesson planning, grammar analysis, and teaching theory. I learned a whole lot about teaching, communication, and the English language. I also realized dozens of ways I could have been better at teaching debate.

Some of these are big-picture things, which I’ve called “theory” below. Others, which I’ve called “tools”, are more concrete. The purpose of this post is to get ideas out of my head and into the world in the hopes that they pique your interest or make you think. If anything is particularly intriguing or confusing, please get in touch.

NB: much of this post is skewed to teaching debate although you could also apply it to teaching and coaching speech. This post is also written with beginner and intermediate students in mind. Some of this is unnecessary (or even unhelpful) for those who teach advanced learners.

If you’re new to this blog: Hi, I’m Renee. I competed in the NCFCA for five years, regularly placing in the top 16 nation-wide in platform, limited prep, and interpretive speeches. I helped coach one of the biggest and most successful clubs in New England for four years in highschool. I continued coaching and judging through college. I’ve taught debate and extemp for the Coolidge Foundation and have taught regional workshops on duo, LD, TP, and apologetics. I don’t compete anymore, but I still care a lot about quality teaching and quality debate.

Theory

You don’t have to be the center of the class.

CELTA-style ESL teaching encourages teachers to design lessons so that they’re not the center of attention. There’s no reason your class should be all lectures and drills. Students learn better and enjoy class more if you make it more active and student-centered. Two quick ideas for making classes more student-centered (see more in the second section of this post):

  1. Get students to match things — terms and definitions, cards with taglines or parts of a 1AC, etc. Amp it up by putting them in groups and have them race.
  2. After drills, have students swap partners and discuss how things went. Frame the discussion by giving them prompts. (They could discuss two things that went well and two that they weren’t happy with, or something that surprised them, or how they think the drill relates to the subject at hand.)

It is your job as a teacher to understand what level everyone is at, NOT their responsibility to tell you when they don’t understand something.

Avoid asking “does that make sense?”. New students especially will nod and smile, regardless of their actual confusion level. Instead, try providing a situation where they can apply their new knowledge. Get used to asking questions with closed answers to check comprehension. When teaching topics like inherency or fiat power, you might want to come up with these ahead of time.
NOT: So does fiat power make sense?
BETTER: (For the resolution “The US Federal Government should significantly change its policy towards Columbia”) “Let’s say the affirmative says that they have fiat over the Columbian government. Are they right?”

Stop thinking of what you need to do as a teacher and start thinking about what students need to be doing.

If you’re like me, you rely on your way to talk yourself out of uncomfortable situations, like a drill fizzling or a class full of thirteen-year-olds antagonizing each other in cross-examination. Instead of trying to talk yourself out of the uncomfortable spot, think about re-focusing the students’ energy. If all else fails, go to drill the students enjoy or give them ten minutes to draft a plan outline using a fake resolution.

Good teaching is a skill. If you teach, you can (and should) strive to get better at it.
I can’t believe that, in five years of teaching, it never crossed my mind to evaluate myself as a teacher. Maybe this has already occurred to you and you’re rolling your eyes right now, but in case it hasn’t and you’re not: please self-evaluate. What did you do well? What could you do better? Encourage this in your students as well. The single thing that dramatically improved my fencing was keeping a fencing journal after practices. Do the same for your teaching and encourage your students to do the same for practices and tournaments.
Ask students to give you feedback on teaching! Do they feel like they’re unable to ask questions? Like you’ve got favorites? That you spend too much time lecturing or too little time explaining difficult concepts? Are you bad at time management? Encourage students (and parents and other instructors, if appropriate) to privately give you verbal, constructive feedback whenever it comes to mind, to send you emails, and so on. You can also hand out anonymous feedback forms at the end of workshops, at the end of every month of classes, or whenever seems reasonable. (This is not permission to use your students to your boost you ego or, on the flip side, to self-flaggelate. Don’t let yourself drift to either extreme.)

Not everything is important to everyone all the time.
I’ve seen many debate teachers struggle with grading their language for newbies. This has bothered me for a long time, although I didn’t know what it was called until CELTA. Newbies do not need to know what a brightline is if they’re confusing harms and disadvantages. They don’t need you telling them the singular of ‘criteria’ is ‘criterion’ after every practice round when their AC is four minutes overtime and is internally inconsistent. Keep others on track, too. Get used to saying “that’s true, but it’s not really important right now” when advanced students or other teachers start nitpicking.

Tools

Encourage students to work through concepts in small groups or with a partner.
Every time you plan on lecturing stop and ask yourself if a discussion is more fitting. This obviously doesn’t work for everything, but you’ve got to make it a real option when planning classes or workshops. This format helps keep students engaged and focused. It can also keep confident or advanced students from dominating the discussion. Plus, students will generate knowledge themselves instead of waiting for you to pour it into their mouths, baby-bird-like.

The basic form for this is to give students a prompt, have them discuss it in small groups, and then solicit answers to be shared with the entire group. Ideas for this:

  • students match cards with headings
  • students write pros and cons lists
  • students group words/phrases/cards into categories
  • students watch a clip and then brainstorm good and bad things about what they saw

Provide more framework for drills.
When you set up complicated drills, make sure your instructions are clear and focused, not muddled by tangents. Demonstrate drills or write the instructions down.
Consider giving students a task during a drill, like thinking about which types of cross-ex questions don’t work or one thing that surprised them.
After the drill, debrief. If you posed a question, call on a few students for answers. If you didn’t pose a question, maybe ask if they wish they’d done anything differently or give them a chance to share constructive comments with other students.

Let students support each other.
Ask students to help each other. Many are totally willing, just unsure how to help (or if helping is even appropriate). If a student is late, for instance, you can ask another student to explain what’s going on. Mix up TP partners sometimes.

Strategize when asking questions. Don’t wait for volunteers — strong students often dominate. Voluntell people instead. Calling on newbies for easy questions builds confidence, while calling on advanced students for more difficult questions can keep them engaged (and out of your hair).

Play music!
There are two ways you can use music while teaching forensics.

First, you can use tunes to set a mood, like “suave mixer” (with jazz or classical) or “high intensity” (with action movie soundtracks). Playing music while on break and while students enter the room can be a nice touch, as long as the music is generally pleasant and inoffensive.

You can also play music with words at a low-medium volume during practice rounds or speaking drills to help prepare students for the fuzzy, unpredictable background noise of competition. (I wouldn’t do this too often, though, and I would certainly explain to students why I was doing it!)

Use boards for feedback.
(Note: this is more relevant for coaching speech than debate.)
There are so many ways that feedback sessions can go off the rails. Instead of opening the floor for comments after a speaker is finished, try giving all students five minutes to write positive and constructive notes on a white board.
Here’s how this worked for critiquing CELTA teaching practice:
1. Everyone (minus the teacher) writes notes for multiple people at a time, one board per person. The top two-thirds of the board are for positive comments, the bottom third for constructive.
2. Whoever went first got critiqued first. They would pick two or three positive notes and ask whoever wrote them to provide more details, then they’d do the same for constructive feedback. The teacher/coach would then talk, giving an overview of how things had gone and anything important they thought peers hadn’t covered.

This simple system solves so many problems, especially for beginner-level critiques. To name a few benefits to “boarding feedback” (CELTA likes to verb any nouns it can subdue), this method:

  • prevents students from focusing on the negative feedback
  • ensures that students get feedback on what matters the most to them
  • keeps discussions from going totally off the rails (“I wanted feedback on blocking but you just talked about my accent for ten minutes!”)
  • prevents certain students from dominating the discussion (as long as the teacher moderates the session well)
  • gives control of the feedback session to the student being critiqued, which ensures it’s helpful to them. It also makes them more supported and less like a bug under a microscope.

Reactive input sessions
Several of our CELTA “lectures” were entirely driven by problems we’d had. In groups of two or three, we’d write three questions. We’d then share them with the teacher, who wrote them down. This took maybe fifteen minutes. He’d then address the questions one by one.

Like boarding feedback, this technique is beneficial for a lot of reasons. It ensures that students get their questions answered without taking up class time that was planned for something else. It also keeps you from getting bogged down on any single question. It’s also fun and efficient, which is always a plus. A session like this would fit well half way through the competition prep season, and you can use this for all levels.

Empathy exercises
Sometimes we forget what it felt like to debate in competition for the first time or to crash and burn during the rebuttals. The better you are (or were) at speaking, the easier it is to loose empathy for nervous beginners. (Don’t get me started on the toxic “all stage fright is selfishness and sinful” rhetoric that gets batted around certain parts of the Christian forensics community. It makes my blood boil, but I save that for another day.)

Lack of empathy is also a problem for ESL teachers. CELTA training programs get around this by creating situations designed to enduce empathy. In the first, a trainer teaches the basics of a new language without using any English whatsoever. You do your best, stumble along, and come out the other side exhausted and speaking three words of Italian (or what have you.) The second (which might be specific to IH Chiang Mai) got us to empathize with illiterate adults learning to write. We coppied a runic passage with our non-dominant hand to help us understand the confusion and motor skills issues that illiterate adult learners experience.

It’s harder to create empathy-building situations for debate teachers, so take it upon yourself to branch out. If you’re still competing, great! Challenge yourself to try something new, even if it’s just in club. If you’re not competition age, make it a point to do things you’re bad at. (I’ve written about something similar here.) Many martial arts and dance schools offer free introductory lessons, so take advantage of some. Start learning a new language. Go ice skating and fall down a lot while six-year-olds glide past you on one foot. You don’t get points for observing here, you’ve actually got to participate. Think about what it feels like to be utterly confused or scared to ask a question. Then — here’s the important part — bring that back to your teaching practice.

Conclusion

If this feels like a lot, it’s because it is. (They pack a whole lot into one month in those CELTA intensives.) Take what resonates with you and leave the rest. Pass it along if you found it helpful, and please don’t hesitate to get in touch if you’d like clarification on any points.

Good luck out there!

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